Judging from its trailer alone, The Emperor's Club looks like a complete and total rehash of every movie in which an annoyingly zealous educator is determined to inspire his or her students to greatness. But that generic standard of the super-teacher is only one piece of a larger and more satisfying story. In fact, the overall theme tends to run counter to the overblown optimism of films like Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver, and Good Will Hunting. With its focus on personal integrity and life altering choices, this character study instead presents a blunt and realistic message: once an asshole, always an asshole.
Based on Ethan Canin's novella The Palace Thief, The Emperor's Club spans 25 years in the life of William Hundert (Kevin Kline), a western civilization teacher at St. Benedict's School for Boys.
The first part of the movie is set in the '70s, when Mr. Hundert initially crosses paths with Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), a smart but defiant son of a Senator who immediately seems to be at odds with the world. Naturally, Hundert recognizes the potential in this young man, and, despite open hostility, encourages him in his studies. Things begin to improve. Sedgewick turns himself around and quickly becomes an exceptional pupil. Eager to give the rising star ample opportunity to make something of himself, Hundert puts him in the Mr. Julius Caesar Contest, a St. Benedict's competition between the top three students. But in doing so, he screws hard-working hopeful Martin Blythe (Paul Dano) out of the running. It seems a minor cost, but it is a decision that ends up haunting the well meaning teacher for decades when Sedgewick cheats in the event and returns to his reckless ways.
The second part of The Emperor's Club jumps ahead 25 years, where a wealthy, successful Sedgewick (now played by Joel Gretsch) wants to reclaim his academic integrity. To these ends, he organizes a reunion with his former St. Benedict's classmates and a Mr. Julius Caesar rematch. An older, less fiery Mr. Hundert agrees to conduct the competition, but soon finds the whole experience to be bittersweet as he reflects on the character of his former students, as well as his impact and legacy as a teacher.
The Emperor's Club has its share of shortcomings. Much of it is easily predictable. The reasoning behind the reunion seems contrived. Hundert's love for a married woman (Embeth Davidtz, always ideal as the "hot female scholar" type) is an unnecessary token romance. And of course, there are many elements common of inspirational teacher stories: the stuffy but cool professor who talks like an encyclopedia; the attempted redemption of a problem child with big potential; the passionate focus on a subject that is meant to rally the minds of the students.
But as cliche as it may be on occasion, this film distinguishes itself with many redeeming qualities. Trading a few Hollywood moments for more probable ones, the story and its resolution manage to be both unsurprising and unexpected at the same time. The majestic scenery provides lots of visually striking shots. The strong cast doesn't bring a single weak performance. Hundert's reconciliation with an adult Martin Blythe (Steven Culp) provides a particularly well done scene and a human depth for his character. And the considerable passage of time adds a certain epic scope that nicely contrasts the story's humble simplicity. While the fleeting years are demonstrated in obvious ways like a caption that advertises the jump forward, they are also felt by other means. In particular, I liked how the mother of a contestant proudly supported her son in the first Mr. Julius Caesar Contest, but was noticeably missing in the rematch.
While the final props for Mr. Hundert are dripping with the sort of sentimentality that gives these teacher movies a bad name, it, at least, is tempered with a depressing and realistic moral about the Sedgewick Bells of the world. It is a simple but relevant message, foreshadowed by St. Benedict's timely motto of "The end depends upon the beginning."
Rating: 8 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)